July 21st, 2003


The Sitcom Is Dead

I haven't watched Malcolm in the Middle in a while. I remember when it first came out thinking that it was the last chance for the survival of the Sitcom. Seinfeld, and even to a degree, Friends, came to us at a time when we as a culture had outgrown the sitcom and thus changed it forever. Both used a more ensemble-based structure and relied on wit, sarcasm, cultural and personal crossreferences to carry the comedy rather than the ham-fisted one liners of the 80's sitcoms. The humour came fast, had high expectations of its viewers, and knew that the viewers expected the same. The fumbling, one-dimensional, glasses-pushing Buddy Lembecks were replaced by more developed tertiary characters such as David Puddy and Newmann. While there was no reality in which Skippy would be palling around with Alex and Mallory, We were satisfied with the halfassed explanation that he lived nearby and had a crush on her. That was it. And as long as he brought the guffaws, there he stayed. Newmann, on the other hand, is a dynamic character. Sure we never know how the Jerry feud got started, but as the seasons wore on, Newmann's neuroses, his crush on Elaine, his willingness to participate in any of Kramer's schemes developed in such a way that we all knew Newmann and knew that nobody could get rid of him. He wouldn't allow it. The new sitcom also realized that 30-minute comedy blocks are no place for morality plays. Gone are the Very Special Drug Use Episodes as exemplified by Willis's pot binge, Alex's pill-popping study session, or even Theo and Roseanne's misplaced joints. The new sitcom was apolitical; Elaine's rabid anti-fur sentiments and Rachel's single motherhood are a far cry from the black-family/white-adopted-child or leftover-hippie-parents/Reagan-loving-son setups of the old sitcom.

I saw all of these qualities in Malcolm in the Middle. It revived the family-centered themes of the 80's but didn't rely on the same conventions. Dewey was never reduced to sit wide eyed on the couch and pull a Rudy. Even in his age-limited acting capacity, the Dewey plot lines were in and of themselves complicated and funny. Reese was a relentless bad kid, never subjected to any sort of sitcom style interventions, yet he demonstrated his humanity in his protectiveness over the wheelchair-bound Steven. The parents never backed down on Francis's begs and pleads to be released from military school. The parents weren't just an excuse to have the children living in a house. They had their own problems, own storylines, own histories that had little to do with their children. Even Malcolm's direct narration stressed the unreality of the sitcom, and at the same time lent a reality to the show that had been detracted from shows previous by the main character's forced conversational exposition.

I loved the darkness of the comedy. I loved it until I saw an episode that was too dark. Hal and Lois suspected that they were again pregnant. The snuck around the house the entire episode hiding pregnancy tests from the boys and waiting for the results. In an Its A Wonderful Life sort of flashback, the couple reflected on their lives and how they had gotten progressively worse with each new child. They lamented on the deterioration of their relationship, the defeat of having to move into a smaller home, and the emasculation Hal suffered in his ongoing efforts to keep the job he resented that was feeding his family. They knew that a new child would only bring more of this pain. But luckily for them they weren't pregnant. I nearly cried at the end of that episode, and as I thought more about the series, about the absurdity of Francis' journey to Alaska and the wife he got along the way, and some of the more Dennis the Menace copycat plots that came along, the more I realized that the saviour had not come. The sitcom would die.

Last night I gave Malcolm in the Middle one more chance. Coincidentally enough, the plot of last night's episode was quite like the one that made me realize that the show was over: Lois's mother slipped and fell in their yard and decided to sue and thus squeezing the last of the money out of the couple that they had, meanwhile, Lois discovers that she's pregnant for sure this time. Between the frantic tear-filled discovery of the pregnancy in the doctor's office and later in the episode when Hal retreated to the privacy of his car to pound on the dashboard moaning and screaming "why me?", I knew I was right. Malcolm in the Middle is not The One. The writers mistake dark comedy for melancholy, authenticity for reality. Reality is not funny. Even reality television is not as real as one of these Malcolm episodes. Take the popularity of reality shows, with the darker hue of the Seinfeld brand of comedy and the well-worn genre of the family sitcom and you get Malcolm in the Middle. And it doesn't work.

Banzai TV, on the other hand, was awe-inspiring.
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